The Artist’s Story

Standing alongside a roomful of my paintings, watching the public wander their way around, it has become more and more clear to me that people’s enjoyment of a painting is multi-factorial, and the significance of those different factors varies between each person.

There is no doubt that some are very straightforward - they judge what they see in the most direct of terms - “Do I like the image? Are the colours and composition pleasant to look at?”
Few people consider buying a painting if they judge the answer to either of these to be ‘No’ (although I have observed that spouses will stand back and set aside their own opinions if their partner is keen.)
Then there is the quality of the work - in the execution of the painting and in its’ presentation. A good quality frame may be at least as important as whether or not I have succeeded in capturing the essence of the subject.
Everyone has their own taste in colour and style. These preferences are expressed in the way we dress and in how we furnish and decorate our homes. And of course any new artwork has to be suitable to ‘go’ with what already exists to create the space where it will hang.
Then, there should be something to say about the picture, or about something the picture says to the viewer, and this is where the artist’s ‘story’ is important.
An artist has to present themselves as a ‘brand’, and in our world today, that brand has to include details of the personal profile of the artist, so that the work can be categorised as being of a particular genre as represented by an artist of that profile?
Western White Men (wwm) like me, dominated the world, including the art world, for so long that rightly there is still a post-modern post-colonial trend to explore and appreciate art that comes from sources which in the past would have found it very difficult to gain exposure. Any comment from (wwm) me on this is likely to come across as patronising. Suffice to say that I have spent many many hours in my corporate life promoting cultural change under the wholly inadequate banner of ‘equalities’; my personal mindset is very liberal and I strongly believe that it was - and still is - very wrong for artists to have to fight harder for appreciation because of their personal profile.

Over the last 100 years (I know ‘cos I have lived through most of it!), in the post-religious and increasingly democratic world, artists have had a great impact representing and stimulating the changes going on across society. Each wave of change has been accompanied or promoted by an ‘avant-garde’ art movement (‘avant-garde’ literally means ‘ahead of the crowd’). Fantastically talented artists - Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Pollock ….. who could each have earned a comfortable life producing extremely well painted traditional pieces, risked all by concentrating their effort on works which were not ‘safe’, which did not conform to the then-contemporary forms praised by the critics.
The irony today is that the current contemporary forms praised by critics include experimental uniqueness, the more bizarre the better, and the equal but opposite backlash to that would be to revert to chocolate-box traditionalism, and who would want to go there?  One alternative is the ‘marketing’ notion, that an artist needs their own brand, backed by their own story, to stand out.

It has taken me some time for this realisation to dawn - my attitude was that the picture should stand or fall on its own merit: why does it matter whether it was painted with a knife or a 6” brush or a chisel? Why does it matter if the artist comes from Pontypool, is left-handed or mad?

Part of the answer is about perspective or viewpoint. Again, I initially understood these phrases only to relate to the presentation of the picture - Does it have depth? Where was the artist standing? How about playing with different viewpoints of the same subject in the same piece?

But of course these issues also relate to the artist.
What I put in a painting is the fruit of my brain, so it is from my ‘point of view’. What I present has been channeled and filtered through my personal set of experiences and values and so my work can justifiably be presented as coming from a right-handed man (wwm) raised in Edinburgh and living in Pontypool painting with a brush or occasionally the palette knife.

What does that add to the decision making going on the minds of the viewers of my pictures?
Each person’s mind is of course their own unique filtering system, but somewhere in there is the ‘trend’ factor ….. How important is it for your home to look like the glossy magazine? Do you want your home to be similar to your Granny’s, or are you looking to make your personal space a unique reflection of your own identity?
My conclusion on this theme is that any artist who attempts to produce work that will sell into a mass market is unlikely to show much of a personality of their own. I am not one of those.
Of course I enjoy it when my work is appreciated, but my work is something that comes from me. If others enjoy seeing it, that is a bonus, it is not the dominant factor in guiding my painting.

Coming Out!

OK, here is the headline - I am a Colourist!
There was a time in my salaried career when I had to speak about ‘unconscious competence’ - when someone doesn’t think about what they are doing, they just do it, and do it satisfactorily. (the point being that moving it into the conscious mind can improve it.) ……. Now it seems that label fits my painting.

I had been painting for about five years when a fellow-artist popped in to see a little
exhibition of mine.

“Oh, Alastair,” he exclaimed  “I didn’t know you were a colourist….”

OK, so I had heard the term, especially in relation to the ‘Scottish Colourists’, but
only as a vague background notion.

Put simply, a colourist is an artist whose work has use of colour as the most significant
feature. The distinctive element which helps to mark out their work.

Looking around the 20-odd paintings I had on display that day, I realised that the observation was
spot on – I use colour a lot. The paintings were a mixed bunch, large and small, several landscapes but some with people or things, oils and watercolours.

While it would be neat to argue that as the largest part of my art education was in
Edinburgh and was delivered by some pretty stern teachers who had themselves
been rigorously trained in the classical skills of drawing and painting, and I spent hours wandering through the galleries and museums gazing on the paintings on those walls that maybe this ‘Scottish Colourist’ tradition somehow permeated my being – so that this is what I believe a painting should look like ?? …..Hmmm.  I don’t put that up as a viable theory. Plenty of other people like me wandered around those same galleries and work in very different styles.

Here is my own take - think about handwriting.

Everybody has their own unique hand – even siblings taught in the same schools
by the same teachers have completely different writing. There is a whole field called Graphology where an expert can look at a person’s handwriting and tell them things about themselves that are not otherwise visible (I know, it happened to me!). 

The same must be true of the core essence of an artist’s style –  their individuality comes through somehow, even if that artist has benefitted from rigorous training (which I have not.)

When I was able to go back to painting,  I knew I wanted to work on landscape and was of course aware of the work of the giant of Welsh landscape painting, Kyffin Williams, but his work is much too dark and moody for me - all that black and brown - masterful capture of north-west Wales and very evocative (and clearly very successful) - but not me. 

So, if my handwriting story is valid, my cheerful positive outlook on life in general comes through in bright colour. 

Of course I can, and do, think about and change the colours on my palette to suit a particular painting to support whatever is the story I want that one to tell, but, as my friend spotted - line up several and the common feature confirms that label - I am a colourist!

Back to ‘unconscious’ competence - this realisation, the move to consciousness, is just like switching on the light in a dark room - I can now see, and this means I can adjust.

The flamboyant exuberance of my instinctive palette is, I realise, not always a good thing.
The challenge is to use it wisely.
The two images of the same painting here illustrate that - my instinctive brightly coloured initial work has been toned down - to be more realistic, frankly …. which goes to another topic - is the Artist ever the best judge of what works or not?? 

[Later comment: Proof of the pudding ….. the revised version has been sold……. that should tell me something.]

{The setting here is ‘The Folly’, above Pontypool park, looking southwards toward the distant Severn estuary. This painting began in a plein-air competition, but the weather was awful so my piece was only half-done and rightly got nowhere in the competition.}

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Buying Art

On buying artwork …..

The whole business of buying a picture is distinctly different to that of choosing furniture, curtains or any other aspect of decorating your home (or ‘interior design’ if that is where you are!)

Because there is an ever-present underlying belief that somehow that picture on the wall will, one day, be worth a fortune.
In the back of our minds is the tale of the cafe owner in the south of France who accepted pictures in payment for the tab of his regular client, Vincent van Gogh.
I suspect that there are probably quite a number of us artists who work at producing art with the same faint hope niggling away - one day this painting will be recognised for its true worth.

Even though we all know, when we are cold and business-like, that these hopes and beliefs are very improbable, millions of people still buy lottery tickets when they know the chances of winning are 14 million to one against.
There is a pleasure about holding that ticket until the draw is finished, hoping that maybe this will be my week, and that same pleasure can add to our enjoyment of an original painting that we have chosen.
This is clearly not true of the big department stores’ sections labelled “Art” where there are factory-produced prints of nice pictures being sold in between the curtains and the wallpaper. This stuff will have absolutely no value as soon as you take it out of the shop - but, to be fair, I grew up with Monet’s poppy fields on the wall - a valueless print, but still a good representation of a Monet.

We ‘spend’ money on carpets, furniture and curtains, but we ‘invest’ in art, and we probably spend a lot more on those other aspects than we invest in the art. But we buy a new car much more often than we change the artwork on the walls (some of us buy a new HOUSE more often than we change the artwork), so choosing wisely is important.

In one of my exhibitions, a lady came in and said she was looking to buy a large oil painting … I tried to remain calm and professional and suggested she take a look around. She did that, then returned to gaze at one, and called me over. We chatted about it, me trying hard not to be the second-hand car salesman, but she was a definite prospect, until….. “No, it won’t go with my carpet.”
It has taken me some time to come round to the realisation that she was right and that leads to Rule 1 in this Guide - the artwork on your walls has to fit with the look you are creating in the room.

Rule 2 is that you must enjoy looking at the piece. If it is going to be with you for years and years, you must gain pleasure from gazing at it.

From my point of view, of someone creating and selling art, this is the cold business rationale for why some art sells while some doesn’t.
But - as I say above, the art market is not cold and rational - there is the ‘lottery ticket’ idea which flows from fashion - some artists are ‘hot’.
There are thousands of people producing original art creating a market which offers original work of good quality covering every imaginable subject. The technical quality of most of that is excellent, and yet - some sells for £100, some for £10,000.
There is an enormous iceberg-shaped distribution graph, with thousands of us striving away at the bottom, selling work for whatever someone is willing to pay for it. At the other end, there are those whose every scribble is snapped up and auctioned for huge sums.
The middle zone of this distribution is busy and competitive, Curators and Gallerists use their skill to judge what will be hot and gamble their careers on choosing which artists, or which styles will sell next year.

There was a time in the past when I had to sit through many many meetings with investment analysts looking after vast sums of a pension scheme. Chatting to one of those, I sought advice on stock-picking for the ordinary citizen. His advice was simple, and I believe it relates just as much to choosing art. He said - “Use your own judgement. If you can see that a high street retailer is struggling while another is always busy and popular - you can see which to invest in.”

- And so - Rule 3 - Use you own judgement. Buy art that you like, that will give you pleasure.

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